There is a vacuum in Whitehall – the regions must fill it
Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. And there is a vacuum at the heart of central Government right now.
The apparatus of Government is being diverted into sorting out Brexit. Cabinet ministers publicly squabble and brief against each other. May pursues a thinned-out legislative programme.
Whitehall is keen to give the impression that this is business as usual. Officials say they want progress on skills, productivity, infrastructure, health and education.
But the chatter in Whitehall is of gummed-up government. Of a bureaucracy hypnotised by Michel Barnier’s swinging pocket watch.
England is arguably the most centralised country in the developed world. Even the Greater Manchester Combined Authority gazes in envy at the powers held by foreign mayors. No one in local government has any real ability even to vary taxation. This is not a normal way to run a country.
Is this the moment for England’s regional and local governments to step into the central Government vacuum? Can they make the case for more powers? For further devolution giving more freedom over taxation?
Perhaps the real question for those regions is whether they can afford not to.
Greater Manchester, the Liverpool City Region, Lancashire and Cumbria all have huge challenges ahead of them. Poverty, low skills, weak infrastructure, a housing shortage, and a too-insular business approach with too few companies exporting, to name but a few.
Can the regions afford to wait?
Can the North West really afford to wait for Ministers to sort out Brexit? We may face two more years of London and our overseas competitors continuing to grow while we are held back by Whitehall inactivity. That could make the challenges facing the region almost insurmountable.
The national government will not easily give away further powers – it rarely does. But as civil servants devote ever more hours to working out how the UK can have exactly the same laws in a post-Brexit 2020 as today, there is an opportunity.
A united local government family should be making the case for further devolution, and fighting for it. Not as some starry-eyed utopian vision, but as a simple necessity. If we do not adopt a more devolved approach of the sort that has been tried and tested around the world, we risk paying a very heavy price.
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